by Michelle Deppe
According to a late 19th-century adage, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” This, essentially, is the basis of therapy offered through workshops by Connected Horse, an effective human and animal interaction program that provides inimitable benefits both to those diagnosed with early-stage dementia and their care partners.
Never have such programs been more relevant. The World Health Organization reports that there are 50 million people with dementia worldwide, with 10 million new cases each year. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, accounting for 60% to 70% of cases. The Alzheimer’s Association reported in 2019 that an estimated 5.8 million Americans have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia.
For Carolyn Leigh, it reconnected her with her husband, John, whose progressive dementia had begun to unravel their relationship. For Richard Allen Driver, diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, it reawakened a childhood memory and gave him hope. And for Paula Calvert and her father, dementia patient John Irwin, it was just what the doctor ordered.
“It becomes healing,” said Calvert. “I’d do it every day if I could.”
These people were brought together by Connected Horse, a nonprofit organization partnering with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Center for Equine Health and the Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Together, they are studying the effects of participation in activities with horses on people with dementia and their caregivers.
Connected Horse marries dementia expertise with a love of horses
Connected Horse was founded in 2015 by Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel, both horse lovers and professionals in the fields of senior and dementia care and gerontology, which is the study of aging and the problems of older people. Their nonprofit is committed to the belief that horses and horse activities can provide humans with valuable insights into the human healing process and purpose.
“Equine therapy has helped so many other populations,” said Schier Anzelmo. “Why couldn’t it help people with dementia and their caregivers?” The concept made sense to Claudia Sonder, a veterinarian at the Center for Equine Health.
“We are meeting a societal need,” she said. “We can collaborate and try to create a program where horses would have relevance in today’s society. It’s been a beautiful thing to watch.”
Dementia affects about 50 million people worldwide, and is expected to reach 82 million in 2030. Unlike other global health priorities, dementia itself is not a disease. It is a term describing symptoms such as a decline in memory and other thinking skills severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for over half of all cases, followed by vascular dementia. It’s a condition with no cure, whose causes are variable and still under research. Those with dementia are not the only ones affected by its symptoms.
“When a loved one is affected with Alzheimer’s disease, it creates a lot of stress on their family, particularly their primary caregiver, which is usually their spouse but can be an adult child or somebody else, even, in the family,” said Dr. Sarah Farias, an associate professor of neurology at UC Davis. “And so one of the aims of the program is to facilitate communication between the person with dementia and the caregiver and then also to help alleviate caregiver stress.”
The Connected Horse Project offers pioneering equine-assisted workshops for people living with early stage dementia. It is kicking off 2018 by partnering with Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center to offer two new four-week workshop sessions. The workshops are based on the success and popularity of a pilot program conducted in fall 2017 with Xenophon.
ROCKLIN, CA (January 26, 2018) The Connected Horse Project offers pioneering equine-assisted workshops for people living with early stage dementia. It is kicking off 2018 by partnering with Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center to offer two new four-week workshop sessions. The workshops are based on the success and popularity of a pilot program conducted in fall 2017 with Xenophon.Read the Press Release
Connected Horse, a leader in equine assisted interventions for people affected by dementia, has wrapped up its 2017 Equine Assisted Workshops and research at University of California, Davis with promising results. Over the course of two years, over 70 people have participated in the research workshops and its community programs. The unique approach of both people with early stage dementia and their care partners participating together has proven to be a powerful tool for participants. The overall whelming response has been that experiencing something new together is exciting and it helps erase the roles and old patterns. The horses have unconditional acceptance and don’t judge people by a label or a diagnosis.
Longtime California friends Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel were already specialists in elder care — and both avid equestrians — when they developed a bold idea. They wanted to combine their unique interests to improve the lives of people facing dementia. The result from these friends, after a great deal of study, is Connected Horse, a series of facilitated workshops aimed at helping early-stage dementia patients and their care partners experience what the women call a horse’s healing presence.
“As equestrians, we know there’s a very real healing presence about horses,” Anzelmo wrote on their blog. “After a bad day, all we have to do is go out in nature, ‘be’ with our horses, relax, and just feel better. There are in-depth studies of the effects of equine work on the stress hormone cortisol, mostly with adolescents, which show [that] with horse therapy, there’s an almost immediate drop in cortisol levels.”
For years, equine-assisted therapy has been a staple in helping veterans cope with their physical war-related injuries and struggles, their struggles with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and in helping disabled children build physical strength and create emotional connections. Now researchers are turning to horses once more to help those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia conditions.
During an Alzheimer’s caregiver support group meeting, Charlotte Driver came across a flier for horse-involved therapy. Having cared for both her father and father-in-law during their struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, and caring for her mother, also diagnosed with the disease, Driver had no illusions about the disease and its impact on families. So, now that her husband Richard was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition that precedes Alzheimer’s, Driver was open to any therapy that might slow the progression of Richard’s eventual cognitive decline.
After nearly 40 years of marriage, Charlotte Driver is confronting one of life’s biggest challenges — losing her connection to her husband, Richard, as he gradually loses his memory. Diagnosed with early onset dementia, it’s only a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer’s disease.
Determined to stave off the disease for as long as possible, the Drivers enrolled in a unique program aimed at harnessing the healing power of horses to improve the quality of life for people affected by dementia and their care partners. They visited the Center for Equine Health (CEH) at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine last fall, along with six other couples, to participate in a research project that grew out of a collaboration with the UC Davis School of Medicine and The Connected Horse Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of all those affected by dementia.
Over the course of three weeks, the Drivers joined the others in five-hour workshops designed to gradually introduce the couples to the horses. For Charlotte, it was an entirely novel experience; she had never touched a horse. But Richard was excited about being around horses again. As a teenager, he helped a neighbor care for his horses.
“They can really read your emotions,” Richard said. “Being around them brought back a lot of happy memories. I’m more conscious of my environment and my emotions while with horses.”
And that’s one of the main goals of the project — helping the patient and care giver get in touch with themselves and each other.
If you ask Richard Driver about the first time he laid eyes on Charlotte,the love of his life, and he lights up.
“When I first saw her … she walked into that church I hit my friend, I said ‘Who is that?’,” Richard said. He remembers every detail of that moment more than four decades ago.
A few more minutes with him, and he’ll tell you story after story about his past.
On the surface it might be hard to believe that Richard is gradually losing his memory.
“Things are changing drastically. He might repeat a lot of things that he doesn’t remember asking me. It becomes disheartening because he’s not the same person that I used to know,” said Richard’s wife Charlotte.
Richard’s been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Doctors will tell you its just a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer’s, and Charlotte becomes his caretaker.
“I didn’t want to believe it at first,” said Richard.
The disease runs in both their families. At one point the couple’s fathers were both cared for at the same facility. The couple now cares for Charlotte’s mother with dementia.
But that doesnt make it any easier for Charlotte to accept her husband of nearly 40 years, might lose his memories with her, even his ability to recognize who she is.
“That does get rough. Yeah. I know that it can happen, and it’s okay. But I just want to be able to deal with it, and I think I will but it’s painful,” said Charlotte.
But the couple isn’t taking Richard’s diagnosis lying down. Their efforts to at least slow down Alzheimers has led them, of all places, to the stables UC Davis’s Equestrian Center.
“The amazing thing about a horse is its a physical and mental experience,” said Claudia Sonder, director of research at the UC Davis Equine Center. Sonder oversees all research projects at the sprawling, 25-acre area that houses close to 200 horse. At any given time, there are about a dozen projects involving the horses.
“Most other programs in the country don’t have a herd like this to train their scientists, to train their veterinarians and to investigate medical problems,” said Sonder.
Despite all the research that happens there, Alzheimer’s and Dementia weren’t among the most obvious topics in which to involve the horses.
“Horses have this innate ability to sense feeling and energy around them and they give you that immediate feedback,” said Paula Hertel, who alongside Nancy Schier Anzelmo created the Connected Horse Project.
Both have worked with horses their whole lives, and spent their professional careers focused on seniors’ health issues like Alzheimers and Dementia.
Between those subjects they drew a connection one not everyone saw at first.
“Yes. We were told a few times, so you’re going to do some crazy horse project?” said Schier Anzelmo.
Most estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association put the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s at more than five million – the majority are over age 65.
In its worst stages Alzheimer’s patients can lose their ability to speak entirely. Working with the horses takes nonverbal communication.